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June 10, 2016 10:50 AM

With 50 Academy Award nominations to his credit and nearly six decades’ worth of iconic film and television themes, composer John Williams certainly has a lot of reasons to celebrate.

And at a gala celebrating him as the latest recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award – the first-ever composer to be honored – Williams, 84, hit a career high note, honored by an A-list assortment of the filmmakers and stars of the classic films his memorable music has enriched.

Director Steven Spielberg – who has had a 44-year, 27-film collaboration with Williams, including beloved scores for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List – was the first to the stage to pay tribute to the movie-music titan at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The filmmaker evoked even more of Williams’ indelible compositions, including the Harry Potter and Superman themes and the music for every Star Wars film to date.

“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, and nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the Earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe,” Spielberg told the starry crowd.

“John, you breathe belief into every film we have made,” Spielberg continued. “You take our movies, many of them about our most impossible dreams, and through your musical genius, you make them real and everlasting for billions and billions of people.”

Harrison Ford
Frazer Harrison/Getty

The filmmaker also admitted that at first he didn’t quite get the simplistically ominous, anxiety-building effect of Williams’ sparse score for their now-famous 1974 collaboration Jaws.

“That theme for that great white shark,” said Spielberg. “When he played that for me for the first time on the piano, he had a big grin on his face, and I thought he was joking. And he wasn’t.”

The duo’s latest collaboration, The BFG, opens July 1, and they plan to reunite for the forthcoming fifth Indiana Jones film.

A heavily bearded Harrison Ford jokingly suggested that he’d had just about enough of the rousing march from Raiders of the Lost Ark. “That damn music follows me everywhere!” said Ford playfully. “It’s played every time I walk on the stage, every time I walk off a stage. What’s worse than that? It was playing in the operating room when I went in for my colonoscopy.”

“Music is the magic dust of movies,” offered filmmaker George Lucas, another prominent Williams collaborator. “Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero’s journey, a fantasy for young people. Then John wrote the music. He raised it to a level of art – popular art that would stand the test of time. What I’m trying to say is, you made my life so easy. I had so many ideas for other movies, but I never got to them because you ensured that Star Wars would endure forever.”

Filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who recently worked with Williams on Star Wars: The Force Awakens recalled dreamy days as a youth sprawled out on his bedroom floor listening to film scores. “No composer told the story, sparked my imagination or touched my soul quite like John Williams,” Abrams said. “Among the impossible number of things that George Lucas did so brilliantly, so right, in 1977 was hiring John Williams.”

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Drew Barrymore, who costarred in E.T. when she was 6, praised the composer for his ability to express a joyful sense of childlike wonder through music. “His music reminds us that the sense of wonder that transports us to a time when we could look at something and say, ‘Holy s—! That’s amazing!'” she enthused. “Thank you, John, for giving all of us that precious gift to fly, to dream, to wonder and to be a kid again, because there is magic in the world!”

“How much of John Williams’ music needs only to be heard? The visuals are nice, but they’re not always necessary,” offered Tom Hanks, whose Williams-scored films include Saving Private Ryan and the jazzy Catch Me If You Can.

“John’s music has a singular authenticity that stirs our synapses. How much do you need? Not even a few bars. A few notes,” said Hanks. “Just like that, we remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard that music for the very first time. It just so happens we were in a movie theater watching a movie.”

Others paying tribute to the composer included celebrity fans Seth MacFarlane, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kobe Bryant and Will Ferrell. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel also led a small orchestra’s moving rendition of one of Williams’ haunting themes from Schindler’s List.

Taking the stage to accept the AFI honor from Spielberg, Williams said their pairing is “like a perfect marriage” and offered an anecdote from their collaboration on the Holocaust-themed film – which ultimately earned the composer his fifth Oscar trophy for Best Original Score – recalling being so emotionally moved by his first viewing that “I really could not speak.” After composing himself, he told the filmmaker, “Steven, this is truly a great film – and you need a better composer than I am.” And he said very sweetly, “I know, but they’re all dead.”

With characteristic humility, Williams also remembered a bit of music he wrote for the original Star Wars in which his instincts almost led him down a very wrong path: “a quite heated love scene with a melody and a development section and torrid climax, thinking that Luke and Leia were lovers – and I found out two years later that they were brother and sister.”

“I owe a great deal to film,” Williams told the audience. “Film these days and music can’t seem to get along without each other. Music is like architecture, sculpture, thousands of years old. Film is the new kid on the block: 100 years, barely. Though we will watch its evolution carefully side by side with the art of music, I am enormously grateful, as all composers are, to film for giving us the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed.”

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